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How to nail that new lick in minutes instead of days

I once heard of a guy who ate his bicycle... Really! He sawed it into little pill sized peices and swallowed them one by one. You can do anything if you eat your challenges one bite at a time, but if you don't, nothing is possible...

3. Challenge Isolation

Rule number three: Never take on more than one challenge at a time!

The third principle is the principle of challenge isolation. It’s about how much information we give the brain to embedd. It’s defining excactly what the challenge is and how many of these challenges we want to give the brain. You see, most people pick something that they would like to learn, and then they bang their head against it hoping it will all come together some day. To practice effectively and radically shorten the amount of time needed to learn a particular lick or run, we must isolate the challenges and practice them one by one - instead of trying to get the brain to deal with three four or five challenges all at once.

If you give yourself a few minutes to analyse what you are actually trying to do, your results will explode. Playing a fast run is not “one thing” it’s many little things and techniques that come together in, what looks as one movement. Untill we have learned it - it is a complex pattern, involving many elements that all have to work together. Once we have embedded it in our nervous system, the brain concives it as one thing because it automated. You just do it. But to reach that point we must pin point the different challenges, sort them out and take them on one by one. This is why this principle is called challenge isolation.

A simple exercise can be overwhelming to the brain

If we do this however, it will be like putting bricks on top of eachother to build the house. How fast can you put three blocks on top of each other? How fast can you put three blocks on top of each other but in one movement? It’s kind of hard. Playing even a three note run all at once is like trying to learn to ride a bike and play the flute at the same time. It’s not going to happen! There are too many elements involved in producing those three notes for it to work. The movement of the left hand fingers. The pressure onto the fretboard. The way you hold the pick, the movement of the pick the depth with wich you pick the string. What notes you accent and so on. A simple little exercise like that can be overwhelming to the brain. But not if we brake it down to one challenge at a time.

"Stop practising and start programming instead. It is so much more effective"

It’s not going to take you longer to break things down. It’s going to drastically decrease the amount of time you spend practicing. It becomes easy instead of hard. Pushing yourself to do that which you cannot do, is only a tiny part of effective practising, yet it is what most people think of when they hear the word "practice". Practicing the excact movement, in slomotion, at an easy pace, with only one or two challenges at a time, without all the straining and pushing, will make you become faster - faster than you thought possible. Stop practising and start programming instead. It is so much more effective.

How impatience can destroy your progress

How do we teach a child to ride a bike? We remove part of the challenge. We support the bike with extra wheels so that the balancing challenge disappears from the learning process, for a while. When the child is good at stearing and turning the wheels, we remove the support and bring up another challenge on top of the other. It’s not possible to learn to balance, steer and move a bicycle forward all at once. Taking on all the challenges at once, results in a much longer and more strained learning process. The paradox is that the more impatient you are to learn to play fast, the more you tend to take on more challenges than you can handle. And the slower you make progress. So the trick here is to push against your natural inclination to take on too much and be your own coach.


"By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart"

Confucius (551 BC - 479 BC),


False proof that it can't be done

Enthusiasm can trick us, we get so exited about playing something that we rush into too many challenges at one time. And instead of learning the lick perfectly and having fun, the lick becomes something we can’t really play or that we might be lucky to play on a good day. It becomes false proof that we cannot learn to play fast! And that is BS!

Think of this: In order to practice playing anything fast, we have to give the brain an exact and consistent answer to each of these questions: Where is you right hand excactly? Where is you left hand? Where is your thumb on the back of the fretboard? How excactly do you want me to pick? And so on. If we have a new and differentt answer for each question each time we sit down and practice we’re going to practice for a loooong time before we get results. Because, from the brains perspective we are not practicing one thing or one lick - we are practicing all sorts of patterns of movement! That’s all fine and dandy, but it’ll take much longer...


"The way to isolate the challenge is, first to discover at what speed you can play the entire run at an even tempo. And then to see what parts of the run you can play faster than that"


Let's say you're practicing a lick and you want to play it as fast as possible. At some point you are going to run into problems. You are going to hit a threshold, a point that you can't seem to overcome. Looking at it on the surface it just seems like you can’t play it any faster than that, but what excactly is the problem? Look a little deeper. This is where the principle of challenge isolation comes into effect. Be the sherlock holmes of guitar speed and try and isolate the problem. The problem you’re trying to find is the limiting element that keeps you from going further. It is THE part of the pattern that limits the rest of it. And it’s always there. There's ALWAYS some part of the lick that slows down the other parts.

A happy camper or a guitar god?

The slowest person in the family sets the maximum speed at which the whole family can move. The weakest part of a chain is the single part that determines the strength of the whole chain. And since not all parts are equally strong -  it’s always there. And when you find it and eliminate it, there’s another part that sets the height of how fast you can play, and so on. Right until you have reached the upper limit of what’s physically possible and that’s where we want to go! To that realm of super power speed that makes the crowd go mad with admiration and envy! That puts the power of superman in your hands and makes you the ultimate guitar god! - Or perhaps just a happy camper that has a lot of fun shredding, what ever suits you the best...

E Minor Harmonic Madness

Take a break and try this E-Harmonic Minor Neoclassical economy picking madness.
The fingerings will seem weird at first but keep at it, and it will make sense.
You can drop the double downstroke motion and make it an alternate picking lick instead
(Go to the beginning of this blog to hear the lick)

Here's the key to identifying the weakest part of the chain:

The way to isolate the challenge is, first to discover at what speed you can play the entire run at an even tempo. And then to see what parts of the run you can play faster than that. Most people would just bang away at it and practice the entire lick over and over again, but you are going to act smarter than that. Isolate the problem and then attack it with all your might,So come up with a little exercise for yourself that you can play to practice just the part that's problematic. And as you practice, focus entirely on the particuliar point of "problem occurence". Focus on that particuliat note that is hard to hit and maybe emphasize it, so it stands out. Do it until it’s easy. Then go back to the whole run and see what has happened to the overall speed!

The Lazer like focus!

Here’s an important point. You’re not starting out with practicing a lick and then having to go back an practice something booring for hours. When you pinpoint the challenges and practice them seperately, the brain knows what to focus on and what challenge to overcome, so it’s able to deal with it - sometimes in minutes! It creates a lazer like focus that cuts through any barrier between you and ultimate speed. Trust me: challenge isolation diminishes practicing time radically, you won’t believe it! But in the beginning you actually have to use your brain a lot more and a lot of people don’t like that of course :o) But that’s not for you and me, we are intelligent people right? We think before and while we act, that’s why we create so great results!! Seriously:

Aim your sniper and go for a clean kill...

It may take me you minutes to isolate and practice the particular challenge and bring your entire skill level up. While it may have taken you four or five hours to practice the entire run without being conscious of what was actually the problem. And this is just one little example - it might be much worse than this. Sometimes, of course, you realize that your particular challenge takes much longer to practice - and that that particular challenge shows up in many places when you play. But then you aim you sniper and go for a kill - locating that specific challenge - practice in short intervals, pausing intelligently - learn and forget, learn and forget - then a lot of runs and a lot of licks suddenly works perfectly for you! Remember this: The more time you have to spend on a particular challenge, the more important it is, and the more things you will be able to do with it. So don’t be discouraged if the challenge seems time demanding. The amount of rewards are far greater than your efforts, if you practice intelligently!

I'm as crazy about practicing as I am about playing and composing. It's so much fun to become better - especially if you make audible and measurable progress every hour you practice. Have fun with it!